In an episode of old Gunsmoke, it was said the Blackfoot Tribe has a saying, “The universe begins when I am born, and ends when I die.” Whether or not that is a real Blackfoot saying, I do not know, though it is an interesting view of existence. Schrödinger took a related look at the idea, that things are as they are only when you look at them. There are entire aspects of physics and cosmology that examine this view; that existence is purely perception, that the only real universe is the universe in your mind. Some even suggest that all of existence is a construct within some mentality. Personally, I’m with Richard Fyneman, the universe is really, really out there. It existed before, and will continue afterward.
I bring this up because it presents an interesting notion. If all of existence is within one’s mind, what happens to existence when you dream? This is the heart of The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin.
I enjoy reading works after their time, especially science fiction. Science fiction often attempts to predict or throw light on what might be. Certainly some are pure fantasy, space opera. But some try to lead. The Lathe of Heaven was written in 1971. Its setting is now, our time, well, maybe a decade or two earlier, the late 1990’s, the early 2000’s. Le Guin’s insights into some of the world’s troubles are marvelous, the hotspots of conflict, climate change, politics, social unrest. Some of these could be easily predicted in the 1970’s, but some would not have been quite so easy to determine. I found these aspects of the work fascinating.
I recently read Le Guin’s interpretation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, which she published in 1997, 26 years after The Lathe of Heaven. In addition to my fascination with her forward insights, I was also fascinated with the heavy inclusion of the Tao Te Ching. Taking these works in the order I read them, it is clear the Tao has been a very strong, and long, influence for Le Guin.
The Lathe of Heaven is an interesting story. The main character, George Orr, is plagued. He has learned that when he has deep dreams, the dreams actually change the shape of reality. As the dreamer, he is the only one aware of this. He wakes carrying two memories, the memory of how things were before the dream, and the memories of how the world works as the result of the dream. Wracked with fear, he feels he has no right to change the course of history. He seeks help and finds himself in the hands of a psychiatrist and sleep specialist.
As it turns out, anyone within George’s presence as he dreams can view the changes. They too, carry dual memories of what was, and what now is. The doctor, Haber, is a self-invested man who sees George as a tool he can use to reshape the world to his liking. Beyond that, he builds a machine that studies George’s abilities, allowing Haber to duplicate them on his own.
Overall, I enjoyed the work. There are points that are definite page-turners. Le Guin is an engaging author, as greater minds than mine have said. Still, there were some minor let downs. The ending romance between George and Heather came without hint. The conclusion, while satisfying, leaves questions. But perhaps that is what makes for a good book.
Worth the read.